Names Make the Book

Mar 21st 2013


"Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea."

So reads the opening sentence of a recent novel. Any guesses of the setting and tone of the book?

Yes, you have stepped into a satiric vision of Victorian England. You can expect stereotypically prim conventions of the period to serve as foils, painting the more outrageous plot elements in sharp relief. The references to dumbwaiters and "taking tea" help place you in the book's landscape, but it's the names -- Sophronia and the redoubtable Mrs. Barnaclegoose -- that really establish the worldview.

The novel in question is Etiquette & Espionage, a ladylike steampunk take on the boarding-school-as-alternate-reality genre that Harry Potter kicked off. The love of names seen in this book almost makes me forgive author Gail Carriger for naming her previous "Victorian" heroine Alexia.

Well-chosen character names help set the scene in innumerable books, from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling. (Conversely, I find that careless naming is often a warning sign of sloppy writting to follow.) But occasionally, the character names go even further, becoming...well, characters. How about the non-names of the anonymous narrator in the opening of Mark Helprin's Memoir From Antproof Case ?

"Call me Oscar Progresso. Or, for that matter, call me anything you want, as Oscar Progresso is not my name. Nor are Baby Supine, Euclid Cherry, Franklyn Nuts or any of the other aliases that, now and then over the years, I have been forced to adopt."

Care to share your favorites? What literary character names have stuck in your mind, shaping your memory of the books as surely as the characters themselves do?


March 21, 2013 6:34 PM

I am in the middle of reading The Uninvited Giests by Sadie Jones.  In truth, I don't much care for it, so I probably won't finish it.  It is a social satire set in Edwardian England, a downscale Downton Abbey if you will.  To the point, the offspring of the family which is in danger of losing its house for financial reasons are Emerald, Clovis (both young adults) and the considerably younger Imogen (aka Smudge).  and really the names are all you need to know to get the picture.

Another case where names make the point: the British comedy, Keeping Up Appearances, in neverending re-runs on PBS.   The show is an examination of social class and social climbing.  The principal character is Hyacinth Bucket--which she insists on pronouncing Bouquet, a woman desperate to transcend her working class roots, which are represented by sister Daisy and her husband Onslow, ever lounging in his underwear and drinking beer.  The other floral sisters are "our Rose," unmarried but never lacking for dubious male companionship, and Violet, the sister who has married into some wealth and who has a large house on grounds with a swimming pool and sauna, and "big enough for a pony. "  Hyacinth's husband has some kind of bureaucratic position which has enabled her to edge into the middle class to which she is hanging on for dear life.  Hyacinth and Richard have a son (never seen) pretentiously named  Sheridan, away at a polytechnic studying needlework and living with a roommate Tarquin, a prize-winning embroderer.  Daisy and Onslow have two children Stephanie, mother of Kyliee (whose father is unknown even to Stephanie), and (the also never seen) Kevin, the quintessential 'chav' name.  Thus the class gap between herself and her family of origin which Hyacinth has managed to open and is ever trying to widen is summed by the names of her son and quasi-son-in-law, Sheridan and Tarquin (pseudo-upper-class) on the one hand and the names of her unapologetically working class (not that much working actually gets done) niece, great-niece and nephew: Stephanic, Kyliee, and Kevin. 

March 22, 2013 10:17 AM

My favorite is Orson Scott Card's Andrew "Ender" Wiggin. I really hope the movie adaptation (set for release in November, looks like) lives up to my astronomic expectations.  Even if it doesn't do the book justice, at least the names will be the same!

March 22, 2013 1:05 PM

As a young girl, I was fascinated by the naming concept in Ten Kids, No Pets by Ann M. Martin (who also wrote the Babysitter's Club series). As the title implies, the family has ten children, whom the parents named using an interesting method with a baby name book: their first child received the 1st "A" name in the book, the second child received the 2nd "B" name, the third child the 3rd "C" name, and so on. The children's names are Abigail, Bainbridge, Candy, Dagwood, Eberhard, Faustine, Gardenia, Hannah, Ira, and Janthina. Because the naming method is so unique and there are so many children, it's an important part of that story. If the children had more common names, I doubt I'd remember the book all these years later.

I also think of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Obviously, a woman's name is the title, and in many ways she is the most important character (certainly the most influential) in the novel. However, by the time the events of the story take place, Rebecca is already dead. In stark contrast, we never learn the narrator of the story's name - she lives constantly in Rebecca's lingering shadow. Rebecca and the narrator are the first and second wives of Maximilian de Winter (often called Maxim); his great estate is Manderly. The names (or lack thereof) of the characters and places are a significant part of the telling of this story.

March 22, 2013 7:28 PM

The Uninvited Guests had some really good bits at the end, Miriam, including a scene that had me laughing out loud as I read (Smudge and her pony's storyline coming to its conclusion), so I encourage you to continue with it, as I felt it really picked up in the latter half!

I think the Harry Potter books did a very nice job of naming characters in a way that really fit with their individual backstories, class and characteristics. However, I always felt that Mr and Mrs Lupin should REALLY have known better than to name their son Remus, because honestly, did they WANT him to become a werewolf?

I think Anne of Green Gables (Anne with an E) also was a good book about names and their importance, as I recall, though it's been decades since I read the series!

(And clearly, I think the Forsyte Saga names are genius.)

March 22, 2013 10:59 PM

The characters in the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books have awesome names: Pergola Wingsproggle, Fetlock Harroway, Harbin Quandrangle, Cormorant Broomrack -- those names have stayed with me for decades!

March 23, 2013 10:49 AM

I love books that have complicated naming rules. One of my favorite sci-fi series, the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold uses them to signify the class system and family relations. Anyone whose last name begins with "Vor-" is the upper class, and then there are Greek, Russian, etc. divisions within and without the vor class. (With the name of the planet being derived from the Emperor's surname) The main character Miles has a non traditional first and middle name due to plot points which later becomes very important to the creation of his off-world alter egos. Such great names in those stories!

I also really enjoyed George R.R. Martin's series because he has such fun with names and nicknames!

And I just reread all of the Anne of Green Gables books--oh my they are FULL of the antique charm names!

March 23, 2013 6:55 PM

Now I know why I enjoy this site so much: y'all like to read the same stuff I do!

I've only read the Alexia-centered books by Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate, I believe they're called), but I recognized her style immediately: reading that opening quote, I was thinking "that sounds like a Gail Carriger sentence." I was giggling with glee to find out that Laura reads her too!

Lois McMaster Bujold is my all-time favorite author, and the names she uses in the Vorkosigan universe are inspired. She admits to making some of them up out of whole cloth -- which became somewhat of an issue when the series was translated into Russian, and some of the "Russian" names, well, aren't -- but those are early characters; she chooses more carefully now. I love the feel of the names (both for people and for places) in the Five Gods universe (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, The Hallowed Hunt): they're reminiscent of real-world names, without actually matching anything real. She has explained her method of achieving that: you take syllables from real names and mix them all up.

But my favorite Bujold universe for names is the Sharing Knife series, her foray into the romance-fantasy genre. For some reason, her world-building hasn't caught people's imaginations as much as her others, but I love the names: full of word-names for the one culture, and all single-syllable meaningless tags for the other. I never had any trouble keeping track of characters in that series.

March 23, 2013 8:17 PM

"that sounds like a Gail Carriger sentence" -- yes, that was my reaction, too.  Guess I've got a new book to add to the queue!

I recently introduced a friend (who loved the movie) to the book version of Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons.  The names in that book are absolutely magnificent, if one is into satires of English rural novels.  The human names are hard to explain without context (though Ada Doom works without description, I think), but the animal names, and the names of various places & organizations, are a hoot.  My favorite are the cows: Aimless, Graceless, Feckless, and Pointless.

March 25, 2013 4:52 PM

I've always been entranced with the name Sophronia since reading "Five Little Peppers and How They Grew" as a child. It always puzzled me with the 5 children names: Ebenezer (Ben), Mary (Polly), Joel, David, and Sophronia (Phronsie). Such basic, short, typical names for the 3 middles and the first and last so unexpected (Ben isn't revealed as Ebenezer until late in the story).

March 25, 2013 5:35 PM

The one that has stuck with me for years was how Oliver Twist got his name.  The person in charge of the orphanage went through the alphabet, and when Oliver was born, the first name alphabet was on "O" and the last name alphabet was on "T".


It's been many years since I read that, so the details may not be right.  I do recall wondering how the two alphabets got out of sync.  (Shouldn't it be on "OO" or "TT"?)

March 27, 2013 12:08 PM

Megan W., how interesting, I didn't know that about Oliver Twist.  Without reference to the book, these are the possibilities I've thought of so far:

1. The orphanage staff decided to go through the alphabet for surnames a few children before (or many children after) they decided to do the same for first names

2. They got through first names faster than surnames because they gave the same surname to siblings received together

3. They got through surnames faster than first names because they received children who already had a first name, but didn't have a known surname

March 27, 2013 7:55 PM

The name Alexia doesn't need to be defended or forgiven. Despite this novel being set in Victorian England, the main character is half Italian, and this alienates her from others, including her mother and half-sisters. The name Alexia is meant to remind the reader that the character is foreign and exotic and different, which isn't a good thing in this context. 


March 27, 2013 9:35 PM

"Conversely, I find that careless naming is often a warning sign of sloppy writting to follow." 


Hehehe... sloppy writting.  :)

April 9, 2013 4:08 PM

I've always liked Sidney Carton from a Tale of Two Cities.  Oh, and what about To Kill a Mockingbird?  There are some great ones in there: Atticus, Scout, Boo.

April 13, 2013 1:37 PM

My sons are Sawyer and Holden. Holden from "Catcher In The Rye"

April 28, 2013 2:00 PM

I remember being intrigued by Araminta, the name of the protagonist in Helen Cresswell's "Moondial", and saying "Chrysanthemum" over and over after reading the story about the girl with that name by Kevin Henkes. Otherwise, many of my lifelong favourite names were found in Enid Blyton's "Malory Towers" books, such as Felicity, Daphne and Connie.